PRUETT: The IndyCar points picture with two to go

PRUETT: The IndyCar points picture with two to go

After a surprisingly early start to the season on February 27 at St. Petersburg, we’re now within two weeks of knowing who will be crowned as the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series champion.

Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland will likely remove a few of the seven drivers who enter the race with realistic chances of winning the title. Take one look at the Turn 1 chicane, recall all of the carnage it has created throughout the years, and it’s easy to imagine one or more of the title contenders being taken out on the way in or on the way out of the corner complex. Anxious times.

The main contenders, led by Team Penske’s Will Power (482 points), Penske’s Josef Newgarden (-3 points), Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (-14) and teammate Marcus Ericsson (-17), all sit within a manageable distance of each other, with Power’s razor-thin lead providing the 2014 IndyCar champion absolutely no comfort.

Portland, and the farewell in Monterey, offer a maximum of 54 points apiece to be earned, but as long as the contenders continue to finish in the same cluster at the front of the pack, it will be hard for real separation in the championship to occur. That dynamic, of the title leaders being on top of each other at most rounds where nobody has built a foreboding gap over the others, has yet to disappear.

In simple terms, the season hasn’t produced a breakaway championship leader and there’s no reason to believe it will happen before it’s over. At the same time, a breakaway is what they’re all after on Sunday.

Entering Portland, Power’s consistency has been something to respect, but the time for seconds and thirds is over. His one win of the season came nine races ago at Detroit, and despite earning five podiums from Belle Isle onwards, his closest challengers have won five times since Detroit with Newgarden (3) and Dixon (2) zeroing in on Power at the point of the season where it matters most.

In the three races held at Portland International Raceway since it returned to the calendar in 2018, Power took the win in 2019 and, for good measure, led the unofficial times during Friday’s private test at PIR. If he wants to leave Portland for the September 11 season finale in Monterey with a heartier lead, a second win of the season would do wonders for the Australian.

Looking back to 2021, CGR’s Alex Palou took the pole and win, so we could be in store for an epic Penske vs Ganassi battle to start and finish first when the weekend arrives.

A win in Portland a year ago set Palou up for his maiden title (Photo by Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images)

Moving to Power’s closest rival, how good has Josef Newgarden’s season gone to date? Two stats jump out that are staggering: He’s won 33 percent of the races held so far, and yet, he’s only led the championship for one race – Long Beach back in April – despite being the most successful driver of the year. Even so, Dixon and Ericsson have watched Newgarden climbed from fifth in the standings in June to second with two races to go. And more importantly, he’s done most of his winning in recent months, with three of the five wins having been earned since the middle of June.

Of all the drivers who’ve demonstrated the ability to pull off big wins this year, it’s Newgarden, and that should be worrisome for Power and the rest. Newgarden’s bringing the heat, and Power must respond if he intends to keep P1 in the standings by this time next week.

The second stat also revolves around Newgarden’s victories in 2022. He entered the year with 19 wins earned across the 10 seasons that spanned 2012-2021. This year, he’s moved that win tally to 24, and in doing so, has captured 21 percent of his career IndyCar victories in a single season. If he can produce one more win from the final two rounds, that would take Newgarden up to 24 percent for all IndyCar wins delivered – in the 11th year of his career – which would be a monumental achievement.

Even more remarkable, Newgarden’s never had a season that’s been as good and bad at the same time since joining Team Penske in 2017.

Where 33 percent of his races have resulted in wins, another 33 percent have come with finishes of 13th or worse, which is a statistical anomaly compared to his two championship winning seasons with Team Penske. In 2017, he had four poor results from 17 rounds – 24 percent – and in 2019, he improved to three undesirable outcomes from 17 races, reducing the number to just 18 percent.

Where Power’s been a vision of stability, Newgarden’s boom-or-bust season could go either way in Portland. Does he run away and hide and take the championship lead, or does misfortune strike and send him to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in a sizable hole? Both are perfectly reasonable outcomes to anticipate.

Dixon is in the same territory as the others where a win would be a transformational thing for his championship odds, but moreover, his CGR team, with three title contenders in the mix, really needs to uncork some hellacious road course speed if they intend to hold Penske at bay. Of the team’s three wins this season, two have come on street courses (Dixon) and one on a superspeedway (Ericsson).

Palou has a pair of seconds – CGR’s best this season among all drivers – on road courses, but zero wins, and if you look to Dixon, a pair of fifths rank as his road course bests and Ericsson has a second and a fourth as his top results. Altogether, those aren’t bad, but we’re at the stage of the game where anything less than big finishes are a liability.

McLaughlin (left) and O’Ward’s championship hopes have faded late in the season (Photo by Phillip Abbot/Motorsport Images)

Race-winning speed is what the CGR trio require to stay in the hunt, and after skipping the Friday test at Portland, there will be a few uneasy days until practice gets under way on Friday and their outright pace compared to Penske is revealed.

Identical to Dixon, Ericsson isn’t far enough away from Power to be concerned, but like Dixon, he can’t afford to finish the Portland race with an increase in his gap to whomever is leading the championship. Just as Palou used his Portland win in 2021 to reclaim the points lead, Ericsson’s hoping to copy his form; it’s hard to ignore his recent slide from first to fourth in the standings in that regard. At 17 points down, Ericsson’s by no means in desperation mode, but that will change if he has an average finish – fourth to sixth – in the Portland GP.

Among the top four, Power and Newgarden don’t need to win; they just need to keep the Ganassi drivers behind them, and if they’re successful, they’ll fly to California with the odds favoring the title going their way.

Dixon and Ericsson are in the most uncomfortable spot within the top seven; if they fail to ace the race in Portland, Monterey becomes an event where cartoon anvils need to strike Power and Newgarden to bring the championship into their hands. A win by a non-title contender from Andretti Autosport or another team could also ruin CGR’s chances as those 50 points are truly precious to the twosome.

Beyond the individual drivers vying for the championship, Portland is a reckoning between the two main teams. If Penske can maintain its minute gap it’s held over Ganassi for most of the year, Laguna Seca could easily become an internecine battle between Power and Newgarden, barring freak occurrences in the race.

WWTR was anything but helpful for the championship aspirations of Alex Palou in fifth, Scott McLaughlin in sixth, and Pato O’Ward in seventh. As we chronicled heading into WWTR, leaving the oval with average results would all but end their title hopes, and that’s precisely what took place. Palou lost ground by giving up 10 points, and while McLaughlin and Palou made the tiniest of headways in their deficits, both are behind by a race win or more.

When you think of those three, consider Newgarden’s big win at WWTR and how it vaulted him from fourth place and 22 points back to second place and three points down to Power. For all the victory did, we’re still talking about a net gain of 19 points on the championship leader. Sitting as far back as they are, Palou (-43), McLaughlin (-54) and O’Ward (-58) need to win and pray for the misfortunes of Power, Newgarden, Dixon, and Ericsson on Sunday to turn a win into a major jump into the top three. Anything less ends their championship dreams.

That 19-point gain by Newgarden is the also the main reason why Dixon (-14) and Ericsson (-17) really need something grand to happen at Portland. Making considerable headway in the standings with this group is a tough slog, and with only two races left to climb the ladder to IndyCar’s Astor Cup, all the hardcore contenders are feeling the pressure to deliver a knockout to their rivals this weekend.

Turn 1, Lap 1, could be where the first big championship punch is delivered.